Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Rethinking Education

[Professor Diane Reay, a leading scholar and critic of educational policies, shares with us her views on contemporary educational thinking. She is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge]

What would you say are the main problems in education today?

In the state system we have an overly controlled, highly prescriptive and excessively regulated education system with a low trust, low respect ethos that does not enable teachers to teach in the ways they consider best for students, or allow children and young people to exercise their curiosity or develop their creativity. But I would argue that the educational system has never worked for most children and young people, particularly those from working class backgrounds, because it was never set up to educate them, but rather to control and discipline.

Why are you particularly worried about the impact on children?

When I was a teacher in the 70s and 80s a main objective was to enable children to think for themselves, to be creative and innovative in their learning, to question and reflect on the world around them. Now the curriculum has been closed down, children and their learning are no longer the main ends in education but rather means to the ends of audit and testing, and beyond that, labour market productivity. This move from centring the needs of the child to centring the needs of the economy is linked to a distrust of the cultivation of independent minds, and a preference for compliant workers – ironically when we need innovative individuals.

Why do you think the education system is moving in this direction?

I think there has been an ideological reaction on the Right to child centred, progressive education which New Labour has colluded in. This has been exacerbated by the dominance of neo-liberal discourses of competitive individualism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. There is a focus on working in and on the self, which marginalises collectivity and cooperation, and results in target-driven cultures preoccupied with outputs rather than processes and people.

How do you see this animosity towards child centred education manifesting itself?

I think because social distances between different social groups have grown in tandem with the increasing gap between the rich and poor, there are mistrust, contempt and fear among our political and policy elites towards class and cultural ‘others’. This manifests itself in a preoccupation with control and discipline within the education of, in particular, the working classes. It is unsurprising that increasing numbers of state schools are run like military academies, preoccupied with rules, appearance and building the ‘right’ sort of character. There is a similar impulse to control teachers.

What is the key measure for reversing these educational trends?

Above all, we must start to treat education as a means of social solidarity rather than social mobility. Current interpretations of educational diversity, which have primarily been preoccupied with the creation of a strongly hierarchised diversity of school provision, need to be replaced with a concern with intra-school and classroom diversity so that possibilities for social mixing are enhanced. At the same time the current highly competitive, hierarchical and fragmented educational system should be replaced with a collegial system founded on collaboration and mutual support between schools. There also needs to be curricular changes. First, a revalorizing of vocational knowledge and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic. Secondly, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important than the current relentless focus on the 3Rs. Further measures would include greater respect and autonomy for teachers; and a much fairer redistribution of resources. According to OECD figures (2009), 23% of British school educational spending goes on the 7% of pupils who are privately educated.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

A History of the World in 500 words

[In every country, there is a debate about what should be taught, especially in relation to history. One answer is that all educators should teach at least one simple lesson on how we got to where we are. Here’s the proposed set text for your reference:]

In the beginning, there was land – where people could find food and shelter, where they could herd livestock or cultivate crops. Rules evolved to prevent some from stealing the fruits of others’ labour. Customs developed to sanctify the reciprocity of treating others as one would have others treat one.

Then came the Con-men (and they were mostly men). They said the land belonged to them. On a good day they would say some supreme deity had given them the land. On a not so good day, they would warn that something bad would happen to anyone who dared to question their claim. The upshot was that people would only be ‘safe’ if they agreed to serve these new ‘masters’ of the land.

Henceforth, people needed permission to work, rest or play anywhere on the land taken over by the Con-men. Whatever they found or made on Con-land belonged to the ‘owners’. For the work they put in, they would be paid a wage. But for the privilege of using the land, and any building or equipment thereon, they would have to pay the Con-men rent, interest, and the bulk of what they had produced, otherwise known as ‘profit’.

The Con-men passed on to their descendants their ‘rightful’ inheritance; while the labouring masses became precariously dependent on what they were paid. At times, workers would be told there was no work for them, and they would end up with no pay, no food, and nowhere to sleep.

Gradually, people began to realise it was all a con. Resources should never have been carved up just to suit the masters of exploitation. Power and wealth should be distributed fairly, and people at large should democratically decide how best to share the rewards from their collective endeavours.

Calls for reforms were ignored until rebellions and revolutions were threatened. At the sight of Con-men getting overthrown in one country after another, concessions were finally granted. Citizens were given a real say in government, and reforms were put in place so that those privileged by the rigged distribution of resources would have to share a little bit more of their wealth with the wider population who generated that wealth in the first place.

Alas, this trend was halted. All too many revolutionaries became Con-men themselves once they had a taste of power. As for the moderate reformists who stayed true to their principles, they were brushed aside again as soon as the threat of revolution subsided.

Thus from the ancient Pharaohs to today’s plutocrats, the same old mix of manipulative tricks continue to be deployed. Everyone is told that if those with the most do not keep getting even more, everything would fall apart. And anyone with not enough to get by is urged to blame it all on those with even less.

If history has one lesson for us, it is this. The Con will go on – unless and until the lies are exposed, and power reclaimed for the wellbeing of all.

[For a book-length history of the struggle against power inequalities, read Against Power Inequalities, by Henry Tam.]